Efforts to thoroughly vet allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate relationships among NAHJ officials, mentors and students unraveled over the course of a year-long probe as investigators struggled to confirm facts and reach those involved.
Hugo Balta, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, announced on Thursday that the organization will not be taking any disciplinary action against members accused of sexual misconduct in allegations dating back at least a decade.
Days before the 2019 Excellence in Journalism conference kicked off in San Antonio, the NAHJ board of directors voted to end the probe and institute findings and recommendations made by a committee of current and former board members charged with investigating the claims.
Blanca Rios, the Region 3 director and one of the four investigators, said the team spoke to about 16 people in the course of its investigation — but several significant voices were absent.
The investigation, which was announced in June 2018, began with a single allegation of sexual misconduct between a student and a mentor on the 2010 Student Project.
After months of investigating, officials said the probe expanded to encompass several allegations of inappropriate behavior among NAHJ members and officials that spanned years — but board members on Saturday struggled to pin down exactly how many incidents of misconduct had been reported.
“There was one catalyst that brought up the investigation,” Rios said. “But our internal investigation was also to make sure people would come forward. So there isn’t one concrete number.”
Investigators set up a hotline for people to submit tips about past transgressions, said NAHJ National Academic Officer Robert Hernandez, who was added as a fourth member of the investigative committee last year. They received multiple tips, though it was not immediately clear how many the investigative committee ultimately followed up on.
The author of a letter that was sent to the board, detailing the 2010 incident, did not respond to more than half a dozen requests from the committee, according to someone familiar with the investigation.
At least four people who were contacted by the investigating committee declined to speak with the team, Rios said.
National at-large board member Steve Soliz said investigators told the board that “a lot of” people had not been forthcoming, making it difficult for investigators to fully evaluate the merits of accusations brought to the board.
“From what they told us, they made numerous calls to people, and got a lot of people who either didn’t call or just ghosted them,” Soliz said. “That was probably one of the reasons why there was the conclusion they came up with.”
Balta said the organization will release its findings and recommendations within the next month.
The board voted to approve several “forward thinking” recommendations including an official code of conduct and resources for any member who has been in a situation where they have felt uncomfortable or threatened. NAHJ officials included a phone number and email address for a “rapid response team” in the email sent to all EIJ attendees.
Rebecca Aguilar, a former board member and lifetime NAHJ member, said she was made aware of three different incidents of sexual misconduct over several years.
She had been contacted by NAHJ’s team of investigators, but declined to speak with them because she felt the integrity of the investigation — which was conducted by NAHJ members who have served on the board — had been compromised. She would have agreed to speak to an external investigator, she said.
“Why should a national organization have journalists on the board investigating, when they don’t have legal background, they don’t have the HR experience and more than anything, it is a conflict of interest?” Aguilar said.
At a meeting with the board, NAHJ members raised similar concerns about the qualifications of the board members appointed to the committee to conduct a sexual misconduct investigation.
“I would just caution Hugo, Alberto or anybody moving forward, to be very careful with how you label something as an investigation, and what resources we as an organization determine as important to look after these things,” former board member Ken Molestina said during Saturday’s meeting.
Balta said the committee did not receive any formal training before investigating the allegations, but were able to consult with lawyers.
Balta added that if the incident had been criminal, the investigation would have been “a little bit different.”
One of the most immediate outcomes of the investigation was a code of conduct that was sent to members of NAHJ on Wednesday, ahead of this year’s conference.
“If everybody cooperated (with investigators), you would have a better understanding of what really happened,” Soliz said. “But if people aren’t going to cooperate, there’s only so much we can know about a situation.”
Karina Elwood is a 2019 NAHJ Student Project participant. She is a junior at the University of Florida majoring in journalism. She is the features editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and spent her summer interning at the Orlando Sentinel justice and safety desk. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @Karina_Elwood.